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Theobromine, Oxytocin, and Chocolate: An Exploration through Botany and Pharmacology

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Chocolate, a beloved treat worldwide, is a complex concoction of compounds that tickle the taste buds and affect the human body in fascinating ways. Two of these compounds, theobromine and oxytocin, play unique roles in chocolate's appeal and effects. While theobromine, a bitter alkaloid of the cacao plant, contributes to chocolate's stimulant properties, oxytocin, often associated with emotional bonding, is released in response to chocolate consumption. This article delves into these two intriguing compounds, influenced by the pioneering research of pharmacologists like Sasha Shulgin and David Nichols, and lists 15 plants high in theobromine and/or oxytocin, other than chocolate.

Theobromine: The Bitter Alkaloid of Euphoria

Characteristics and Effects
  • Structure and Nature: Theobromine, chemically known as 3,7-dimethylxanthine, belongs to the class of methylxanthines, similar to caffeine.
  • Effects: Primarily a central nervous system stimulant, it also has diuretic and vasodilating properties.
The Role in Chocolate
  • Concentration in Chocolate: Theobromine is found in significant amounts in chocolate, particularly dark chocolate.
  • Impact on Mood and Health: It stimulates the heart and relaxes smooth muscles, contributing to the feeling of alertness and well-being often experienced after consuming chocolate.

Oxytocin: The Hormone of Love and Connection

Characteristics and Effects
  • Nature: Oxytocin, a peptide hormone, plays a crucial role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, childbirth, and the period after childbirth.
  • Release Triggered by Chocolate: The consumption of chocolate triggers the release of oxytocin, enhancing feelings of bonding and pleasure.
Chocolate's Emotional Appeal
  • Psychological Effects: Chocolate's ability to stimulate oxytocin production might be one reason for its emotional appeal and the comfort it provides.

Influence of Shulgin and Nichols

  • Psychoactive Substance Research: The work of Dr. Sasha Shulgin and Dr. David E. Nichols in the field of psychoactive substances, particularly their research into the structure and function of neurotransmitters, offers valuable insights into understanding how compounds like theobromine affect the brain and body.
  • Receptor Interactions: Their explorations into serotonin and dopamine receptors provide a framework to comprehend how chocolate compounds interact with the brain to produce their unique effects.

Plants High in Theobromine and/or Oxytocin

  1. Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis): Contains theobromine, known for its stimulant properties.
  2. Guarana (Paullinia cupana): Another natural source of theobromine.
  3. Tea Plant (Camellia sinensis): Contains lower levels of theobromine.
  4. Kola Nut (Cola acuminata): Used in some soft drinks, contains theobromine.
  5. Açaí Berry (Euterpe oleracea): Contains trace amounts of theobromine.
  6. Carob (Ceratonia siliqua): Often used as a chocolate substitute, contains theobromine.
  7. Ginkgo Biloba: Known for its memory-enhancing effects, contains trace theobromine.
  8. Sunflower Seeds (Helianthus annuus): Contain small amounts of theobromine.
  9. Black Tea: Lesser than green tea but contains theobromine.
  10. Pecans (Carya illinoinensis): Contain trace amounts of theobromine.
  11. Peaches (Prunus persica): Small amounts of theobromine can be found in peaches.
  12. Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra): Contain theobromine.
  13. Green Tea: Has a notable amount of theobromine.
  14. Grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi): Contains minimal levels of theobromine.
  15. Apples (Malus domestica): Trace amounts of theobromine are present.


The intertwining of theobromine and oxytocin within the matrix of chocolate offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of food chemistry and its impact on human physiology and emotions. The work of Shulgin and Nichols helps frame this within a broader context of psychoactive substance research, emphasizing the complex interaction between diet, brain chemistry, and emotional well-being. The presence of these compounds in various plants beyond chocolate further highlights nature's diversity in influencing human health and experience. As we savor the richness of chocolate, we are also partaking in an Ancient Electrochemical Ritual.

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Guarana: A Tale of Energy, Culture, and Tradition


Guarana (Paullinia cupana), a climbing plant native to the Amazon basin, particularly Brazil, is a symbol of vitality and culture. Revered for its high caffeine content and rich cultural significance, Guarana has transcended its Amazonian roots to become a global phenomenon in energy drinks and herbal supplements.

Botanical Description

Guarana is characterized by its large leaves, clusters of flowers, and distinct fruit. The fruit, resembling a human eye, contains black seeds partially covered by white arils. These seeds, about the size of a coffee bean, are the plant's most prized part. When ripe, the fruit opens up, revealing the seeds, creating a visual that has deeply influenced local lore and tradition​​.

Historical and Cultural Significance

The Guarani word for the plant, "guara-ná," translates to "fruit like the eyes of the people" or "eyes of the gods." This imagery plays a vital role in the mythologies of the Tupi and Guarani people. According to a Sateré-Maué tribe myth, the domestication of Guarana was linked to a deity killing a beloved village child. To console the villagers, a benevolent god planted the child's eyes, giving rise to wild and domesticated varieties of Guarana​​.

Traditionally, the Guaranis made herbal tea from Guarana by shelling, washing, drying, and then pounding the seeds into a fine powder. This powder was kneaded into a dough and shaped into cylinders, known as Guarana bread, which was then grated into hot water with sugar​​.

The Rise of Guarana: From the Amazon to the World

Guarana was introduced to European colonizers in the 16th century and was commercialized by the late 20th century. Its introduction marked the beginning of its global journey, transforming it from an indigenous secret to a sought-after ingredient in energy drinks, soft drinks, and dietary supplements​​.

Nutritional and Chemical Composition

Guarana's main claim to fame is its caffeine content, approximately double that found in coffee beans. This makes it a potent stimulant. The seeds also contain other xanthine alkaloids like theophylline and theobromine and are rich in tannins, saponin, starch, gum, volatile oils, and fixed oils. These components contribute to its bitter, astringent taste, similar to coffee​​.

Health Benefits and Uses

Traditionally, indigenous populations used Guarana as a stimulant and appetite suppressant, attributing various medicinal effects to it. Modern studies suggest potential health benefits, such as reducing fatigue, improving focus, aiding in weight loss, providing gastrointestinal and pain relief, enhancing heart health, and treating age-related eye conditions​​.

In a study conducted in a Guarana-growing region of Brazil, habitual consumption was associated with lower blood pressure, less obesity, lower cholesterol levels, and lower rates of metabolic syndrome. These benefits are attributed to the plant's rich antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents​​.

Risks and Side Effects

However, the form in which Guarana is consumed significantly affects its health impact. The processed form, often found in energy drinks and supplements, is stripped of its natural properties, leaving behind concentrated caffeine. This form of caffeine releases more slowly and has a longer-lasting and more intense effect than coffee, leading to over-caffeination and potential side effects such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, high blood sugar, dehydration, and jitteriness​​.

The Guarana Economy

In the modern market, Guarana has found a prominent place in energy drinks and sodas, especially for those seeking a coffee-free energy boost. It's also sold in powder and supplement form and may be an ingredient in energy bars. The global rise of Guarana highlights South America's significant contribution to the world's caffeine consumption​​.


Guarana's journey from the Amazon rainforest to global energy drinks is a testament to its potent effects and cultural significance. Its story interweaves tradition, health, and modern consumerism, highlighting the importance of understanding both the benefits and risks associated with natural stimulants. As Guarana continues to energize the world, it remains rooted in the rich history and culture of its Amazonian origin.


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